For New York’s Growing Synagogue, MBB Creates Urban Community, Expands Campus

For New York's Growing Synagogue, MBB Creates Urban Community, Expands Campus
Park Avenue Synagogue's 87th Street Building Chapel, renderings by MBB.

Following on its comprehensive, campus-wide master plan for the growing Park Avenue Synagogue community in New York City, the architecture and design firm MBB is completing a renovation and expansion of the congregation’s 87th Street Synagogue building and has debuted its adaptive reuse of a newly acquired historic building on 89th Street, converting it to eight floors of active learning spaces.

The results have delivered “a cohesive plan for this vibrant congregation’s varied needs,” say the synagogue’s leaders, incorporating spaces for prayer, special events, education for all ages, and support functions including offices and a catering kitchen. In short, it’s “a responsive urban campus for a growing faith community,” adds Mary Burnham, FAIA, a partner with MBB.

The heart of the expanded community campus is the 87th Street Synagogue building, originally built in 1927 and expanded since. The MBB-designed renovation of the adjacent, six-story Synagogue facility, a 65,500-square-foot structure, creates welcoming community gathering spaces for members of this vibrant and growing congregation.

Nearby, the just-completed expansion of a 1912 neo-Renaissance Upper East Side townhouse serves as the art-filled Eli M. Black Lifelong Learning Center. Inside, MBB has created framed niches in the stairs and along corridors displaying midcentury stained glass works and ribbons of 200-plus graphic artworks spanning three millennia, curated by Chicago’s Amy Reichert. Congregation members now enjoy a modern, light-filled interior thanks to its skylit central stairwell leading to classrooms and a chapel.

About the project
The design process for this renovation began with a campus-wide master plan for the growing Park Avenue Synagogue community, establishing a program for their 87th Street Synagogue facility in tandem with a newly acquired building on 89th Street. This provided a cohesive plan for the congregation’s varied needs, incorporating spaces for prayer, special events, education for all ages, and support functions including offices and a catering kitchen.

For New York's Growing Synagogue, MBB Creates Urban Community, Expands Campus
The Lobby
Rendering by MBB

The 87th Street Synagogue, originally built in 1927 and added onto in 1954 and then again in 1980, is the heart of the Park Avenue Synagogue campus. The six-story, 65,500-square-foot synagogue addition renovation focused on creating welcoming community spaces for this vibrant and growing congregation to gather. Program space on the ground floor is maximized to allow informal gathering spaces. A glassed-in, double-height space visually connects the ground floor to a large event space below. Another double-height space visually connects to clergy and staff offices located on the second floor, creating a dynamic and unified entry. Within the new lobby, an intimate Minyan chapel is designed as a sculptural object inviting daily prayer. The redesigned lobby also provides a formal entry sequence to the main historic sanctuary. Decorative elements at the Minyan chapel and the sanctuary entrance draw on decorative motifs from the historic sanctuary.

Redesigned circulation includes a glassy stair off the lobby with materials and detailing that are consistent with the stair MBB recently designed for Park Avenue Synagogue’s Eli M. Black Center for Lifelong Learning at 89th Street. Similar details include a vertical niche housing an installation of historic stained glassed windows created by the American artist Adolf Gottlieb for Park Avenue Synagogue during the 1950s. The installation creates a visual connection to Park Avenue Synagogue’s new, recently completed building and honors the synagogue’s rich history.

About the Park Avenue Synagogue’s Eli M. Black Lifelong Learning Center

Designed by MBB (Murphy Burnham and Buttrick Architects), Park Avenue Synagogue has reconstructed a seven-story townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to serve as a learning center for the synagogue community.

For New York's Growing Synagogue, MBB Creates Urban Community, Expands Campus
Park Avenue Synagogue’s Eli M Black Center for Lifelong Learning chapel
By Frank Oudeman, courtesy MBB

The elegant and highly functional solution creates a bright, modern setting behind the building’s landmark façade, with extensive use of glass and wood as well as integrated artwork designed in collaboration with Amy Reichert, a Chicago-based designer of Judaica. The expansion of learning spaces for the Conservative congregation, which has grown from about 1,400 member families to 1,700 over the last decade, accommodates growth in its educational, cultural and spiritual offerings for children, teens, adults and elderly members.

A full gut renovation of the 17,400-square-foot, 1912 Neo-Renaissance building—originally designed by Arthur C. Jackson and most recently the home of an independent school—realigns the floor levels and interior circulation for its new uses. Large and small classrooms and meeting halls, a chapel, and a rooftop terrace and garden present highly flexible, multi-use spaces with oak wood detailing and oak cabinets for storage of supplies as well as furniture sets of different scales. The building hosts morning, afternoon and evening classes, carefully choreographed to accommodate all ages and users.

For New York's Growing Synagogue, MBB Creates Urban Community, Expands Campus
The Lobby
By Frank Oudeman, courtesy MBB.

From its spacious lobby with a custom layered-glass wall installation, visitors pass through full-height glass and metal partitions to a central stairway with glass guardrails, which opens to each level and is flooded with daylight from a large skylight above. Open and inviting, the circulation spine reinforces a sense of community and, with its thematic installations at each mid-landing of stained-glass windows created for the synagogue in 1954 by artist Adolph Gottlieb, alludes to congregation’s rich history. A wood ceiling element wraps from the lobby into the stairs and to the chapel on the second floor, drawing visitors within.

Along one side of the hallways on each floor are art friezes with Reichert’s selections of some 200 artworks inspired by the Torah, which draw from historic and modern masterpieces organized by themes related to each book of the text. The values of the synagogue are also integrated in the translucent resin panels embedded with fabric in the lobby, recalling the traditional tallit, or prayer shawl. Custom liturgical furnishings include a new ark and lectern in the chapel, which are designed in a modern language that references geometric motifs from the synagogue’s main sanctuary on 87th Street.

For New York's Growing Synagogue, MBB Creates Urban Community, Expands Campus
The central stair
By Frank Oudeman, courtesy MBB.

Designed for easy navigation and to make maximum use of the new space to serve diverse users of all ages, the new learning center is fully accessible. Doorposts hold two mezuzahs each, at different heights, accessible for younger occupants and wheelchair users. Learning takes place indoors and also outdoors on two terrace areas. A large basement with resilient finishes and a colorful acoustic soffit surround offers a place for young children to play. New restrooms and a pantry are located within easy reach, and administrative offices are embedded in the building’s upper floors to support the educational mission and programs.

Using highly resilient materials and high-efficiency, green building systems, the renovated building is durable, sustainable and has low operating costs. Careful use of acoustic materials adds to the sense of refuge and comfort within, and WiFi and audiovisual systems are seamlessly integrated into the spaces.

Resulting from a four-year capital campaign, the Eli M. Black Lifelong Learning Center is the first component of a multiphase building program that will allow the Park Avenue Synagogue to launch “new program initiatives, a re-envisioned curriculum in its Congregational School, and a fresh take on familiar worship events,” says Beryl Chernov, the synagogue’s executive director.

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